Colombia, leftist FARC in 'giant' step toward peace

Havana (AFP) - Colombia's government and Marxist FARC rebels announced they had reached a deal on demining, a stride forward on a key issue to negotiate peace after decades of conflict.

Army and FARC leaders met for the first time in what one diplomat called "unprecedented" talks.

"The government and the FARC have agreed to ask (Norwegian People's Aid) to lead and coordinate a cleanup and decontamination operation: for mines in rural areas as part of the armed conflict," a statement from the parties said, read out by Cuban diplomat Rodolfo Benitez.

Lead government negotiator Humberto de la Calle, a former vice president, stressed that: "our goal is to put an end to the conflict... so the demining proposal is a first step, but a giant one toward peace."

"Starting today, the government and the FARC will be working together on the cleanup and clearing of some rural areas."

President Juan Manuel Santos, in Monteria, Colombia, called it "extremely important.

"And it is a much needed sign that in fact we are on the way to ending a conflict that has bled us dry for over 50 years," Santos said.

The Colombian conflict has killed 220,000 people and uprooted more than five million since the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was launched in 1964.

The peace talks, which began in November 2012, have produced partial accords on several issues, but have yet to yield a final deal.

Benitez said the sides agreed to the demining arrangement "as part of the de-escalation, and as a confidence-building measure... as well as to create better safety conditions for rural people."

- More progress looming: FARC -

FARC lead negotiator Ivan Marquez said the deal "begins the cleanup and demining of our fields."

"It is positive to be able to say that the working group on issues as critical as the final bilateral ceasefire, and mutual commitment to laying down arms, has started to work at a good pace, and with some moving closer, and more trust, among (enemy) fighters," Marquez added.

The FARC declared an indefinite, unilateral ceasefire on December 20, but Santos has rejected a bilateral ceasefire without a definitive peace deal.

Negotiators seeking to end the more than five-decade guerrilla war at talks in Havana are under growing international pressure to guarantee justice for crimes committed during the conflict.

Last month, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan warned during a visit with both sides that the International Criminal Court could step in if the final peace deal did not bring justice for victims of the conflict.

Cuba and Norway are guarantors of the Colombian peace process under way in Havana.

Now in recess, the full-fledged talks are due to resume March 17.

The FARC admits its insurgency -- Latin America's biggest -- has affected civilians, but denies having committed crimes against humanity or violated international humanitarian law.

The National Liberation Army (ELN), a much smaller rebellion, is not part of the dialogue with the FARC.

The ELN, however, is in preliminary talks with Bogota on a peace process of its own.